Why do we grow our own food?

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my backyard arctic garden

I realized while going through the blog posts that I haven’t yet discussed the reasons why we are growing our own food here in Anaktuvuk Pass Alaska!  After all it requires a HEFTY amount of time, resources, brain power, and motivation over the years.

I guess I can start with my own story and how it morphed into a bigger story.

In 2008 or thereabouts I was confronted with my age and health.  Like most residents on the North slope I was on a path to diabetes, lung issues and other health problems stemming from my diet and lifestyle.  At the time I smoked cigarettes, rarely exercised and ate a weird mix of about 15% wild caught food and about 85% pre-packaged food from the store or take out.  My idea of cooking was following the directions on a mac and cheese box.  Right around that time we moved from Barrow Alaska to Anakatuvuk Pass.  I decided to take the opportunity in the change of scenery to try and quit smoking cigarettes for the 50th time. And it actually stuck.

Then my taste buds came back to life.  And I could smell.  I could hike up a hill without breathing hard.  It was like an instant boost in health and energy.  And it made me think of the possibilities of better health.  Then like every good adult I went and got my yearly physical and talked to our doctors here about becoming healthier.  They suggested that I should eat better.  I agreed and went home thinking of where to start.  I knew that I had to first find healthier foods, and so went searching for them.  Fruits, veggies, low salt, low sugar….yada yada.

I found almost instantly that it was near impossible to eat a healthier diet here in the village.  At least it was impossible to eat the suggested ‘western’ diet of salads and lean ground turkey and kale and avocado for eample.  First of all our store…yes…one store…did not carry a whole lot of fresh veggies and fruit.  They usually had onions, and small heavily waxed red delicious apples, maybe some potatoes and if your lucky some tired looking iceberg lettuce.  Once a month or two we got some wilted carrots or oranges and other more shelf stable veggies and fruits.  It wasn’t the stores fault.  They have always tried their best to provide for us, but are confronted with heavy shipping fees and really long shipping times so they tried to only buy items with longer shelf lives.  Thus the bulk of the groceries available are usually canned or dry goods, with a sprinkling of frozen items that sometimes go through a melt or two because of shipping process and seasons.  Add to that that by the the time the fruit or veggies gets to us with the added shipping costs they end up being extremely expensive.  I paid 10$ once for a small cabbage.

Everything in our village comes through tiny planes that deliver goods and passengers daily (weather permitting), as we are not on the road system. So fresh items take quite a bit of time to reach us.  Which is why most of us eat prepackaged foods. It is the norm, so being unhealthy has become the norm.

Then one day while talking with some locals I learned that some of the Elders here would grow potatoes near a stream north of us at a camping site.  They would bury potatoes in the spring and come back in the fall and dig them up and get tons of potatoes.  And it sparked an idea in my head.  Serendipity.  I just happened to have grown up partially in Northern California where I was recruited regularly by my grandmother  who had a green thumb.  While killing snails and slugs and hauling chicken poo and weeding her beds she filled my head with stories of growing up in the Depression and growing her own food as a kid.  And while following her around to nurseries and watching her buy half dead plants for discount that she would resurrect later she would teach me plant growing basics. It seemed my Elders conspired in that moment to bring me to an idea.

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My grandma Jewel

So I searched and searched for information about growing food in the Arctic.  And the file was thin.  A handful of foreign growers.  Most were NEAR arctic.  Almost all relied heavily on some sort of greenhouse or semi-indoor system that was expensive and very much out of reach for this little Inupiaq girl.  Nothing for the average backyard grower.

I decided to give it a try and see what happened if I just tried to grow them outdoors. Scientific method 101.  I bought some seed that I thought might work, found some dirt that looked like good dirt and hauled it home and put it into some raised bed boxes that I made my husband build from old salvaged wood.

And they of course failed….magically.  They sprouted, grew bit, then wilted and died.  The surface of the soil was moldy.  It was insulting really.  My stubborn streak took over. So that whole winter I spent studying up on growing plants.  I studied local plants and how they grew.  I was determined.

The next summer I did better.  I added more raised bed boxes.  I even got a tomato or two.  We ate salad all summer long.  We learned to love kale.  I observed and recorded problems to work through over the winter.  And then a year later others started to notice the fresh veggies I got from my backyard and asked if I could help them set something up. There were MANY people being told by healthcare professionals to eat better and not having a way to eat better.  At least a cheaper way to eat better.

And so Gardens in the Arctic was born.  I raised money to buy user friendly grow boxes for the local families that wanted to grow their own food and helped them build small greenhouses cobbled together from scrap wood and salvaged plastic.  I do all the front end work of starting seedlings and finding fertilizer but they grow them all summer and they have control over what they want to grow.  And we are learning how to be healthier and how to preserve our bounty and how to mix these foods with Native foods and which bugs are good bugs, and it’s an adventure!

But one issue I found was that some families did not have the time to grow their own but still wanted to eat healthier, and in 2016 we were very LUCKY to receive a high tunnel donated by Petro Star.  Now we are learning how to best use that high tunnel to get the most out of it and how it fits in our cultural activities and schedule.

Our goal is to provide for our community and to create a rural INUPIAQ model of agriculture.  100% of our fresh grown food is imported into the village.  90% of fresh veggies and food is imported into Alaska from out of state.  So we are striving to create self sustainability and to become independent as a People. To become healthier, and gain control of our diets.

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First cucumber we grew in the high tunnel

It’s also YUMMIER.  Our kids and customers here are blown away by the sweetness found in strawberries, the sugar content of carrots and the buttery goodness of summer squash.  Nothing compares to homegrown food.  It has made people more connected with their food choices and the food habits that they pass down to their kids.  Every time I water the plants a gaggle of kids show up to bug me to feed them snap peas and baby carrots and strawberries, and that is how kids should be growing up.

It’s a long process, we moved inches every year in knowledge.  But it’s also exciting and rewarding.  Our people were once nomadic, moving from place to place, gathering foods.  I read a report once from a old journal from a white traveler that our people actually ate about 40% veggies and fruit and other plant material.  Usually preserved through fermentation.  But once we settled into villages at the turn of the century we sacrificed that part of our diet, as plants don’t move like animals.  But I think this way we are re-claiming our food culture, adapting to the times, and getting back to a diet that is closer to our ancient diet.  And that can only lead to a better …healthier…life.

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